National trails: Too much to know, too little time to know them

This piece originally appeared in the Feb. 2, 2017, issue of the Portage County Gazette. Every now and then, I look for updates on Summers, but can find no information on his planned effort to do all the national trails — or any info at all.

Ice Age Trail winter thru-hiker Mike Summers passed through Portage County last week, and his name is one we might want to keep an eye out for.

The North Carolina native, by way of Chicago and Portland, is on a two-month foray through Wisconsin to practice winter camping.  He’s prepping for a two-and-a-half year, 20,000-mile hike on our National Scenic Trails, so he wants to learn all he can about handling winter weather.

That’s admirable enough, but it was one of his Facebook videos that really made me understand his commitment to the task: fording the Prairie River in Lincoln County sometime early this week.

Barefoot, of course.

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Kansas’ Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is park unlike any other

This piece originally appeared in the Jan. 11, 2017, issue of the Portage County Gazette.

When it comes to national parks, there aren’t many like the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas’ scenic Flint Hills.

My family has been there multiple times – most recently in December – and I’m still not fully sure what I think about its particular approach to being a national park. For one thing, there’s no camping, even though there would probably be nothing more awe-inspiring than to sleep in the open under those vast prairie skies.

It’s a complicated place with a complicated history, and if you’re headed through that part of the country, it’s well worth a day trip – or even two or more, if you stay in one of the historic communities nearby.

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Dedication of landowners gives life to trails

author’s note: this is a very slightly edited version (for clarity) of my original column from Nov. 2017 in the Portage County Gazette. Sadly, Bob Ellingson passed away in February 2020, but I hope this column helps commemorate him properly in some small way. (Top photo by Jean Klein)

Nobody has to look far to find evidence of a world gone mad. When the craziness drives us outside, though, it’s good to remember that there are folks like Portage County’s Bob Ellingson who allow and encourage the natural experiences that often keep us sane.

Bob is one of the many faces behind the Ice Age Trail, an 1,100-mile miracle that exists because of the hard work of volunteers, a small but dedicated staff at the Ice Age Trail Alliance, and many others.  Businesses, politicians and promoters have all played important roles in the formation of this trail, which isn’t yet finished as a path through field and forest.

But no role is more important than that of landowners like Bob.

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Small steps in Marathon County good enough for now

(Author’s note: Continuing my attempts to archive my past Portage County Gazette columns. This one is from May 24, 2017.)


Bridge on Plover River IAT segment, Marathon County

When it comes to protecting our public lands, it’s easy to see recent developments as one step forward and three or four steps back.

Efforts to strip protected status from national monuments and sell off or otherwise allow desecration of Wisconsin public lands by greedy businesses seem to fill the news recently.  These aren’t the best ways to start the summer outdoor season, but it doesn’t hurt to keep them in the back of our minds while we’re out having fun.

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A riot of wildflowers reminds us of what we’ve been missing

After a long year of working for an employer that’s frequently in the news for all the wrong reasons (see, for instance, exhibits A and B), I am reminded of the toll it takes on a body when we don’t get outdoors enough.  Fortunately, the kids agreed to a quick spring-break trip to Big Bend National Park, which we visited to wrap up an all-too-quick trip to Texas in March.

I can’t remember if this was my fifth or sixth trip there, but the important thing was that it was the kids’ first.  Our 10 days on the road were a little grueling, taking us about 3,600 miles in all (including family & friend visits), and despite getting really worn out by the constant moving from one place to another, the kids loved our trip and say they’re ready to go back.

The photos aren’t of the best quality — my old Galaxy was on its deathbed, so we used Sam’s lower-quality phone for the photos — but the weather was great and the flowers glorious.

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